In this podcast, I talk about the design of the Lorwyn set.
Posted in Making Magic on January 21, 2019
Last week, I started sharing some card-by-card stories from Ravnica Allegiance. I didn't finish, so I'm continuing today.
When I started playing in Limited Edition (Alpha), one of the cards that intrigued me was Plague Rats.
When I finally got the chance to design my own set in Tempest, I decided I wanted to try and design a Lightning Bolt that functioned like a Plague Rat. It took me a while to figure out how exactly to do that, but, eventually, I cracked it. Instead of looking onto the battlefield like Plague Rats, the Lightning Bolt–like card would look at the graveyard for other copies. That way each one you cast would be stronger. This card ended up being called Kindle.
In addition to pushing the ability out to all the colors, Odyssey also played around with having the cards count more than just themselves.
The Kindle ability next showed up on two cards in Coldsnap, as the set had a graveyard subtheme.
Then it showed up on a single card in Magic Origins and on two cards in Eldritch Moon.
This latest batch shifted over the cards from looking at all graveyards to just looking at your own. It lines up with our larger philosophy of things like tribal lords where we don't force players to second-guess playing their own cards because they might strengthen their opponent's cards.
Which bring us to Goblin Gathering, the first Kindle token maker. It seems only apropos to be in red, the color that made the very first Plague Rats Lightning Bolt. Now all that's left is to make a 1/1 creature that gets bigger based on every other copy of it in your graveyard, and the cycle will be complete.
Here's another fun designer task: Create a card that encourages players to do something they normally wouldn't do, something that you think will lead to fun games. Guardian Project is a perfect example of this design goal in action. Normally, players play four of their cards because those are the best cards for the deck. Why not maximize them showing up in your draw?
The problem, though, with playing all four-ofs is that there's less variance, and as I explain often, variance is the source of much fun. (It's one of the reasons, for example, Commander is a singleton format.) Is there a way to bribe a player into not player four-ofs? What if we made a card that rewards you for having different creatures? What kind of reward can we offer? It has to be something most decks can use. How about card drawing? That's pretty useful.
What color do we put it into? First thought might be blue, as it's the best card-drawing color, but blue has the fewest creatures. This deck wants to be full of creatures. Green has card draw but only when tied to creatures. Wait a minute—this effect is tied to creatures, and green is one of the most creature-focused colors, so it's a perfect fit. And that is how Guardian Project came to be.
Ethan Fleischer has a design truism: don't make the players do math. While we mostly stick to that, there is one big exception—the X spell. Richard Garfield, a former math professor, embraced X spells in Alpha with thirteen different spells with X in their cost (and that's not counting Drain Life, which now has an X thanks to an Oracle text update). X spells are cool in that they allow a variable effect based on the mana spent, but time has shown us that they confuse players. In fact, the Game Support team tracks questions they get, and back when we regularly did X spells at common, their number one questions was "How does this spell work?" (It's one of the major reasons we don't do a lot of X spells at common anymore.)
To make things more complicated, we've made X spells where the X is applied to more than one effect. Hydroid Krasis, as an example, has an X used not once, not twice, but three times. It dictates how much life you gain, how many cards you draw, and how many +1/+1 counters the creature gets. But wait, it gets more complicated. Two of the three effects don't care about X, but half of X rounded down.
Hydroid Krasis is a very fun card, and a mythic rare, meaning it's unlikely to be the card a beginner experiences first in the set, so this complexity is bit more justified. I just find it funny how complicated X spells can become.
Kaya is the third Planeswalker of the set and, like Domri and Dovin, also only has one previous planeswalker card. Kaya's shtick is twofold: One, she's an assassin. Two, she has the ability to phase (walk through things as if they were intangible). This ability allows her to touch and "kill" ghosts. We met Kaya for the first time in Conspiracy: Take the Crown where she was hired by Marchesa to assassinate King Brago, a ghost.
Kaya's original card allowed her to flicker both herself and other creatures (exile them and return at the beginning of the next upkeep; this was done as a clever way to help her regain loyalty since she had no plus ability) as well as drain players and force discards while drawing cards. Interestingly, the assassin's original planeswalker card never killed anything.
For new Kaya, the goal was to play up her role as leader of the Orzhov (again, through the machinations of Bolas). Her +1 ability is trying to play up her ability to "kill ghosts" as she's removing creatures that have already died. Her exile ability helps deal with some graveyard interactions and the life gain tied to it plays into Orzhov's "life matters" subtheme.
Her -1 ability is playing into her assassin flavor. It's restricted to smaller things for Play Design reasons. This ability makes her particularly good at killing token creatures.
Her ultimate (her first one ever, as her original card didn't have one) is doing two things. One, it's a drain effect that both ties her thematically to her first card and also plays into the Orzhov "life matters" subtheme. Two, it helps tie all her abilities together as both her +1 and -1 abilities exile. Kaya "kills" things and then grows stronger based on how many things she's gotten rid of.
Two cards back, I talked about how X spells can confuse players. You know what confuses them even more? XX spells. In the history of Magic, prior to Ravnica Allegiance, we've made 22 cards that have XX in their mana cost and one (Astral Cornucopia) that has XXX. The reason we use XX (and almost always only at rare and mythic rare) is it's the only way we can cost large scaling effects. The cards with XX tend to be pretty exciting, and a number of them are classic Magic cards, so XX is a necessary evil that we just have to be careful with how often we use.
Red is, among other things, about chaos. Conceptually, that's cool, but mechanically, chaos can be a bit hard to translate into cards. Players want to know what their cards are going to do, so when we make a card that may not work, players often aren't happy. For example, I talked about how when I dug into why some dice-rolling cards in Unglued were disliked, I discovered that the most disliked ones were where you couldn't control what would happen, not the ones where you know what would happen but didn't know how big the effect would be.
The solution we've found is to make cards where the randomness happens often enough that you're bound to get lucky some of the time. For instance, because Mirror March happens every time a noncreature enters the battlefield under you control, you're going to get a lot of chance to flip coins, and, odds are, you'll win about half. The card is priced assuming you win 50%, and then, when you win above that, it feels great. Only when it dips below that do you feel unlucky, and only super unlucky when it continually fails to hit, something that won't happen very often.
When I talked about Goblin Gathering, I explained how the Alpha card Plague Rats inspired the Tempest card Kindle. Well, that wasn't the only Magic mechanic inspired by Plague Rats. When Alpha came out, there weren't any deck restrictions (other than a deck needing to have 40 cards; the 60-card restriction would come later). The intent was that players could include as many Plague Rats in their deck as they wanted. (And in the early days, many players did.) Once the four-of rule was instituted, it meant the death of the Plague Rat deck, so, in Fifth Dawn design, we made a replacement.
Relentless Rats costs 1BB instead of 2B but started with a base of 2/2 rather than 1/1 (as Plague Rats was a little on the weak side). The card was popular enough with the casual crowd that, over the years, we made a few more. I'm not sure why they were all black (well, two of them were Rats), but a lot of the public believes that having any number of cards in your deck is a black thing. It's actually not. Any color can do it. It's not the kind of thing we need to restrict to a certain set of colors, as that's unnecessary.
Now, I've said this publicly on my blog a few times, and people always respond, "Well, then make one in another color." We finally did. I enjoy how Persistent Petitioners does it in a very blue way. I'm hoping all of you that have been asking for the nonblack Rat–like card enjoy it.
I want to talk about Pestilent Spirit with a trivia question. Which evergreen keywords can (meaningfully) be put onto instants and sorceries in black-border Magic?
There are many times and places for innovation in Magic design, but there's also time for stealing from the past. Sometimes the best way to make an exciting new card is to copy from something players enjoyed in the past. Prime Speaker Vannifar is a perfect example.
Birthing Pod was created during New Phyrexia design by team member Joe Huber. We were designing Phyrexian mana cards and wanted to make a wide variety of cards. Joe came up with a green artifact (all the Phyrexian mana cards were colored, as Phyrexian mana was all colored in the set) that felt green, but was something that players would be willing to pay life for in nongreen decks. I'm not sure of the inspiration for this card, but my best guess is that it was Transmute Artifact, a sorcery from Antiquities that did something similar but with artifacts. (Transmute Artifact was the card that inspired me to make the Urza's Saga card Tinker.) Birthing Pod went on to be a Constructed powerhouse, showing up in just about any format in which it could be played.
So, when the Design team was trying to figure out what the newest leader of the Simic could do, the idea came up to make it a walking Birthing Pod. It felt pretty Simic, and we knew it was an effect that many players loved. By putting it into two colors, we were able to drop the activation cost from two and tap to just a tap.
Rakdos is the Demon who founded and runs the Cult of Rakdos. He's appeared in every visit to Ravnica, so the key to creating a new Rakdos is making sure we capture the essence of who Rakdos is while ensuring we make a card that plays nicely with the Ravnica Allegiance version of the guild.
The original Rakdos was a 7/6 creature with flying, trample, and a destructive power that tended to destroy chunks of the battlefield—including your own cards. The Rakdos when we returned to Ravnica was a 6/6 but still had flying and trample. This Rakdos was a little less destructive and more encouraged you to deal a lot of damage to your opponent. This was done to make the card play better with the Return to Ravnica version of the Rakdos guild.
The third incarnation of Rakdos started with the idea that he was a 6/6 creature with flying and trample. (Through-lines like power/toughness and evergreen abilities can be very helpful to making a character feel the same.) It was decided to push him closer to his original destructive version than his pain-loving Return version. Like the original, this card has the ability to destroy any non-Demon on the battlefield. Instead of letting the players control what gets destroyed, though, the newest version uses a coin-flipping mechanic to make the destruction seem more random and, in my opinion, more Rakdos.
Simic Ascendancy is what we in R&D called an alternative-win card, or "alt-win" for short. We usually don't do more than one alt-win card per set and usually don't do more than one or two per calendar year. The key to a good alt-win card is that it has to inspire a player to want to build a deck around it. Alt-win cards are usually designed for Johnny/Jenny, as they require creative deckbuilding.
Simic Ascendency is a pretty straightforward alt-win card, in that it tells you what component it cares about—the granting of +1/+1 counters. Because Magic (and Simic) has a lot of cards that do this, there are a plenty of options on how to build the deck. Not all alt-win cards help you achieve their goal, but most of the best ones tend to. The other nice thing about Simic Ascendancy is that it helps you win the game even if its alt-win condition isn't always the way you win. In Draft, for example, someone can draft this card for its +1/+1 counter granting and, every once in a blue moon, achieve its alt-win.
Teysa, like Rakdos, has appeared in every visit to Ravnica.
In her first appearance, she was part of a cycle that rewarded you for doing two different color-based actions that, when they overlapped, created synergy. Orzhov has a strong ghost theme, so Teysa allowed you to "turn" your black creatures into Spirits and then use those Spirits to exile your opponent's creatures. On the return, Teysa, kept her Spirit-making ability, but it was instead tied to a No Mercy–style effect that killed creatures that damaged her. This did a nice job of playing up the Spirits' need to serve the living. This version of Teysa was given two new abilities, vigilance and protection from creatures, that allowed her to be a good attacker and blocker.
The latest version of Teysa went a bit of a different direction, but one designed to play very nicely with previous versions of herself. While the previous Teysas had death triggers, the new Teysa has the ability to copy death triggers. Blue and green are normally the colors that copy things, but the death connection made it a nice fit for Orzhov. Her second ability enhances creature tokens, something both of her previous incarnations create. Note that both of her abilities work very well with the Orzhov keyword afterlife, in that it's a death trigger that makes tokens, so instead of dying into some number of 1/1 fliers, they now die into double the number of 1/1 fliers with vigilance and lifelink.
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed the card-by-card look at Ravnica Allegiance. If you have any thoughts on this column, any of my stories, or on the set of Ravnica Allegiance itself, please feel free to email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and Google+).
Join me next week when I answer all of your questions about Ravnica Allegiance.
Until then, may you have fun in Ravnica without falling under Bolas's thrall.
In this podcast, I talk about the design of the Lorwyn set.
This is the first in my "Designing [Blank]" series where I talk about how to design basic Magic effects.